Autumn has come (photographically speaking) in central Europe, and we could not wait to see the first fall colours inundating the slopes of the Alps. A few days ago we visited the area of Saas Valley, in Valais, and the still green larches from the valley bottom have already turned to gold at higher altitudes. We spent a night up there in what seemed to be the last “decent” temperatures of the season and experienced a great sunset, star-filled night and wonderful sunrise. Although the panoramic images are still in the lab, I decided to post one of the digital captures we took there.
To the tell you the truth, this images is quite unconventional, taking into account nice autumn colours scream for colour images normally. However, there are some times you really know black and white will enhance the message and visual impact of the image…and this was one of those cases.
When talking about composition to my students, i have always hated to talk about “rules”. For me, there are no real rules of compositions. As Eliot Porter said, “thinking about rules of composition when taking an image is like consulting the laws of gravity before going for a walk. If you really twist my arm asking for “rules”, I would tell you: Simplify, and make the abstraction of the subject matter into its visual building blocks…This later part means: instead of looking at a certain part of the landscape and seeing “trees”, “rocks”, “water”, “clouds” and “mountains”, you should see tones, colours, lines, shapes, balance between elements, visual tension, repetitions, visual echos, textures, patterns,…It is only in this way that you will become a visual artist, and not a simple snapshooter. If you want images than transcend the simple denotations, you need much more than a nice subject and a great light. You need to take your responsibility as photographer, and do that so important part of the job which consists in putting a frame around a little piece of reality to show it to others, in a way it conveys the message you want to be conveyed. And to do this, you need to stop thinking in terms of “subjects depicted” or “tags” and start thinking in terms of visual components for your image.
If you take a look at this image, the real message is the drama of the alpine world, a dynamic image showing what anyone might feel when in the mountains. This message is conveyed by means of that channel of expression which is completely linked to the depicted subject matter. In this case, the fury of the elements (the water raging down the valley), the mineral raw material which created the whole thing (the rock boulders) and the majestic peaks towering over the whole, almost touching that sky with booming clouds where the back light and god beams add to the drama. If these elements depicted help transmit the message, the sole channel of the subject matter represented in the image is not enough for a really strong image. We need to use or accompany that by a second channel of expression in a coherent way: what I call the structural or formal expression of the image. This means we need to use the visual building blocks which are the base for any visual design, as words which put in a certain order convey and highlight the same message or evocative feeling we want to pass with our image content. In this example, the photograph is about dynamism, drama, intemporality, wilderness and raw natural force.
This message is conveyed by using a diagonal lines, triangular shapes (you might be able to count more than 12 different triangles here), a high overall contrast, a shutter speed which retains a strong texture in the water but shows its movement, the back lighting, the sharp angles and rugged texture of the rocks, the wide richness of tones, the depth created by the water getting diagonally into the frame and bouncing in zig zag as it enters the image, the diminishing perspective (trees becoming smaller as they get far away)…and the black and white conversion.
Black and white here does two things: it takes away an extra dose of documentary or realistic level and elevate the image to a higher level of connotations, and most of all, focuses the attention to the strong visual qualities of the composition without adding an extra layer of information which would not have added as much expression but more complexity. In a way, getting rid of the colour, you see much easier the wonderful textures, lines, shapes of the scene, and savour much slower the strong composition of the scene. In a way, with the black and white conversion I opted for strengthening the message conveyed by the visual building blocks of the image, even if I had to sacrifice the richness of the autumn colour at the level of the subject matter. It adds, therefore, a timeless quality to the image, which corresponds very well with that image of imtemporality which we associate to these rock giants. However, as in every artistic endeavour, the taste might be different and some people might prefer a colour rendition…In the end, the is no real truth, and that is the funny thing!
Thanks for reading and great light to you all ;-)
(click on the image to see it bigger!)